How to write a job description that’s not bullshit

Hiring is hard enough. If your job description says “we’re full of bullshit,” you’ll attract bullshitters and repel genuine human beings.

Here’s the gist of my advice: write shorter and speak directly to applicants.

If you want to see how not to do that, check out a job description Johnson & Johnson has posted (hat-tip to the brilliant Steve Woodruff for pointing it out to me). You’d need a machete to hack through the jargon in this document. The onslaught of verbiage signals that the company must be a dense political thicket. I have no idea if J&J’s Depuy Orthapaedics organization is that bad, but that’s certainly the impression they make.

JnJ job descriptionThere’s a nauseating level of detail in my marked up Google Doc shown here. (Color key: green is vague, purple is jargon, yellow is passive, orange I explain below, and grey is just stuff you can live without.) Four quick tips stand out:

1 Leave stuff out. When you include every single thing a staffer might do in a job description, you’re telling the world that you’re a meddling micromanager. You’re also exposing your scary internal politics. Just leave most of it out. Stuff like this will make any decent applicant nervous:

[This person] will contribute to positively driving business model change and executing against innovative approaches in the new environment, contribute to the development of enterprise account model [sic] that will change the way J&J operates in the marketplace, and will hold accountability for effective, creative contract and agreement leadership working across different sectors of the organization.

2 Write shorter sentences. This document features overlong, ornate sentences. Would you want to work with someone this verbose? (Ironically, successful candidates must have “the ability to communicate the complexities of a business problem in clear, meaningful and simple terms” — unlike the person who wrote this.)  Here’s one passage with useless words highlighted and my plain English translation:

The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.

Bullshit-to-English translation: You’ll show key enterprise customers the benefits of working with us.

3 Ration use of “and”. Until I read this, I didn’t realize “and” is a problem word. But the 61 uses of the word “and” make up a troubling 6% of the 970 words in this document. (Only one is in the company name, “Johnson and Johnson.”) I highlighted them in orange; it looks like the document has a horrible rash. While you can’t write without “and,” if you tend to babble on, please try to cut back.

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4 Write directly to the applicant. The entire qualifications section of this document is written in the passive voice, making it far easier for its author to imagine absurd qualifications. Once you rewrite them actively, you realize they’re not actual qualifications like sales experience, but basic management competence. Three or four qualifications are sufficient for any job description, lose the rest. Doubly stacked passives make my head hurt:

Ability to identify what people, technologies, facilities and equipment are needed to execute the shared business plan is required. Identification of new organizational competencies that may need to be sourced externally is needed.

Bullshit-to-English translation: You need to be able to figure out what internal resources you’ll need, and what you’ll need to get from elsewhere.

Lessons: Spend the time to create a short, direct job description. Don’t use it to work out your own fears about what the applicant might need to do, and don’t advertise your political problems.

Short version: Here’s how J&J might right this job description next time:

The AVP, Enterprise Customers works with our biggest customers. You’ll work with sales and other groups to help them understand how our products can help them. Based on what you learn, you’ll suggest ways that all parts of J&J can work better to serve their needs. We’d like candidates with a master’s degree and 12 years of experience, including 5 years working with customers. And since you’ll be working with all those different groups within J&J, you’d better be good at persuading people to do what you want.

Question for all of you: Does this kind of drivel come from people in HR or clueless hiring managers? Or is a collaborative effort?

5 responses to “How to write a job description that’s not bullshit

  1. Companies without a well-defined ‘job-development-house’ will have jd’s describing a wide array of tasks and responsibilities because HR, the hiring manager and the departmental executive are worried they are not capturing all areas of responsibility.
    In fact, your short version Josh leaves for far more creative interviews and ‘thinking on your feet’ from both the applicant and the interviewer. Great post!

  2. My recent big-company experience tells me that managers are often expected to use their internal, HR-approved job description in advertising for new staff. Or, they go through the pain of producing something that’s acceptable to HR to get the position approved and don’t have the time or energy to turn it into plain English for posting.

    I like your observation about ‘and’. An editor once pointed to an ‘and’ in a sentence I’d written and said, “Is that ‘and’ strong enough to hold that sentence together?” It was a great lesson.

  3. This thing has to be up for the 2016 Bullshitty Awards. Are you having them this year? PS – you are slowly but surely making me a better writer. Thank you.

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